Our culture’s obsession with innovation and the breakneck speed of technological progress has created opportunities for learning and exploration that we couldn’t even dream of years ago. Unfortunately, for all of our recent cultural focus on the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, we still face challenges in teaching these subjects in the classroom, as our country’s place in world STEM rankings demonstrates. If we are to continue competing in STEM fields, we need to prepare the next generation for success by instilling them with the qualities and skills they’ll need to succeed—grit, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving.
We need to teach them how to be Makers.
We’ve discussed lessons learned from the Maker Movement before, but what is the Maker Movement? It’s a convergence of DIY and hacker culture that takes a hands-on approach to experimenting with technology and combines it with old-world craftsmanship. It’s about repurposing objects and creating new solutions to everyday problems with available resources—and those resources are more accessible than ever before.
Where designing and manufacturing goods was once an endeavor only possible for companies with access to vast sums of money and complex industrial machines, we now have powerful personal computers and affordable desktop manufacturing equipment that enables individuals to turn their designs into reality. Inventors and DIYers once tinkered away in solitude in workshops and garages, but the internet has created a collaborative culture where individuals can come together to share resources and designs, raise money for their projects, and even sell their designs directly to consumers. Maker culture has transformed the manufacturing industry, and it may hold the key to solving some of the challenges we face in the classroom today.
How the Maker Movement Could Solve These Common Classroom Challenges:
1. Many college students aren’t inspired by STEM fields.
When your only interaction with a concept is through a textbook and a series of worksheets, it’s hard to get excited about math and science. In contrast, the act of designing and constructing ideas immerses students in the concepts and creates an active learning environment rather than a passive one. Learning by doing is a large part of the Maker ethos, and while transforming an entire curriculum may not be currently within reach, introducing a hands-on project that challenges students to apply concepts and find their own solutions will reveal not only the utility of these subjects, but also their marvelous possibilities.
2. STEM fields are intimidating
How many times have we heard from students, “Math is too hard” or, “I’m not good at science”? For many students, the STEM fields are intimidating and the concepts often hard to grasp, especially in the manner and at the pace they’re taught. Failure to keep up or receiving a failing grade on assessments often motivates students to abandon that course of study or avoid those fields altogether rather than persevere. What’s different about the Maker ethos is that it actively encourages failure. Makers are constantly iterating on their projects—the process is the point—and each failure is an opportunity rather than a defeat. Creating projects and opportunities that encourage discovery and learning through failure is a great way to reawaken students’ interest in a topic they find intimidating, and enables them to learn the value of perseverance for themselves when they finally succeed.
3. College students think school isn’t preparing them for “real life.”
Today’s students know when they’re not getting the bang for their buck, and if we want to prepare this generation of students for success in the current and evolving economy, we need to make sure they graduate with what it really takes to succeed. Unlike traditional models of schooling, the active learning that occurs during Making forces students to apply different areas of knowledge and think creatively in order to bring their idea to life, teaching skills our society lauds as necessary for later success. They must think creatively and critically to identify a problem and design a solution for it, and reach out to their peers or online communities to find resources and fill in knowledge gaps. Creating the prototype introduces them to the actual process of manifesting a once-intangible idea, and persisting through each failure and iteration shows them the grit and drive it takes to succeed.
As you can see, the Maker ethos could play a pivotal role in addressing some of the challenges we face at all levels of education today. For K-12 levels, Maker projects could help spark young learners’ interest in the STEM fields, and in higher education, the lessons prepare students for succeeding in the professional arena—and their creations could be leveraged for employment opportunities. While portability might seem like an issue—it might be difficult to bring something like a solar-powered server to an interview—the solution is actually quite simple. Rather than list projects on a flat medium such as a resume or depend on the ability to verbally describe the sheer awesomeness of a project, student-Makers should create digital portfolios, such as those offered by Pathbrite. Digital portfolios allow Makers to display their projects in an engaging, multimedia format where they can show off the entire process, from initial sketch to completed creation. Not only that, the portability of digital portfolios enables them to easily share their experience with prospective employers, setting them up for professional success.